Neelam Sahota, CEO of DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society, is reminding communities an important message of humanity this holiday season
By Surbhi Gogia
Christmas is much more than a festival of gifts and parties; it is a time to celebrate the spirit of giving. This holiday season, Neelam Sahota, CEO, of DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society, has an important message on sharing our space with members of our community who face complex barriers, stereotyping and even hatred — they are Canada’s refugee families.
Neelam’s humble reminder is a simple lesson in humanity. “No one wants to be pushed out of their home, but when circumstances are out of their control, refugees may land here in Canada, and it’s important that we help them settle in,” she says. “As human beings, we all have the same right to feel safe, secure and connected, and to give the best to our children. Refugees and other newcomers are here to build the best futures for their children, just like anyone else.”
A chartered accountant by profession, Neelam joined DIVERSEcity, a non-profit registered charity, a decade ago. Driven by a passion to serve the community since childhood, she left her corporate job to do something that would make a difference in society. As someone who joined as a part-time employee and worked her way up to be CEO, she has seen the organization grow and expand its services for all types of newcomers from skilled immigrants to refugees.
Started in 1978 by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. as a response to the growing instances of racial unrest in Surrey, the organization evolved and in 2007 was rebranded as DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society. If earlier the racial unrest was against family class immigrants and South Asians, it has shifted more towards refugees today. “We are witnessing the reigniting of racism within the city due to the increased number of self-sponsored or government-sponsored refugees,” says Neelam. “But we are all immigrants in this country, other than the Indigenous people in Canada.” She warns against categorizing refugees and yourself into phrases like “them” and “us,” as it creates a problematic divide.
Over the last few years, the Canadian government’s focus has been to bring people on humanitarian grounds along with economic and family class immigrants. According to a report by NewtoBC, Surrey received a larger proportion of refugees than other communities. Refugees made up 11% of Surrey’s immigrant population and 10.2% of its recent immigrant population, while only 9.0% of immigrants and 6.5% of recent immigrants in the Metro Vancouver region were refugees.
Neelam points out that demographic changes have caused unrest in the community. “There is a perception that the government is suddenly favouring refugees. Anytime we have a disruption in demographics, it takes people longer to accept those changes and when those changes happen without proper messaging it leaves the door open for personal bias.”
She urges people not to shy away from asking questions and getting informed about refugees, but recommends proper information channels, rather than comments on social media. “Please have conversations. We are at risk of losing that human touch today. Things can’t always be explained in a 30-second video. It is easy to form an opinion and stick to it, so make sure you’re listening to the right sources.”
Of course, refugees might take longer to settle and contribute to Canada than other immigrants, since their circumstances and journey is very different. “They are mostly from countries that are witnessing civil war like Syria, North African countries, Myanmar. A lot of them suffer from PTSD, violence and trauma. Some have never even seen life beyond a refugee camp,” says Neelam.
“It may be a few years or a whole generation before we start seeing a refugee family contributing to the economy. But, just like other immigrant communities, their children flourish and get established in their careers.”
DIVERSEcity offers many programs for refugees to help in their journey, from settlement assistance to personalized case management to counselling services that are culturally informed and offered in many first languages, including Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Farsi and English. All newcomers, whether refugees or skilled immigrants, face many changes, challenges and losses when immigrating to a new country. DIVERSEcity’s settlement workers and counsellors support them all in their journey to emotional wellbeing and career success in Canada.
Neelam shared an amazing story of a young refugee family with an expecting motherwho landed in Canada. A couple of days after arriving, the wife delivered twins. With no food or place to live, DIVERSEcity staff and others funded their immediate needs. They then helped the family set up their tailoring business. “Our community was extremely giving and we supported them for a couple of months. The family was very grateful for the support.”
Within 24 months,the family’s tailoring business was flourishing. “The family came back to us and donated way more than what we gave them. That donation was just one part of the equation we built with that family. He went on to become a speaker and is now inspiring others through his story.”
There are many more examplesof how DIVERSEcity helps refugees and immigrants. This November, the organization ran their annual Bundle Up campaign,a donation drive for refugees and higher-need clients to prepare them for the cold, winter months. Many newcomers to Canada come from warmer countries and aren’t prepared for the cold winter weather.
Also in November, DIVERSEcity was a recipient of a Community Counselling Grant from the provincially funded Community Action Initiative. “In 2018–2019 alone, we helped 2,100 clients through our counselling services at DIVERSEcity. This funding will allow us to expand the reach of our free, culturally informed mental health services so we can help even more people,” Neelamsays.
The three-year Community Counselling Grant will allow DIVERSEcity to reduce waitlist times for its existing mental health and substance use services by funding additional staff resources so it can better meet the needs of the fast-growing population in Surrey and its surrounding areas.
Neelam feels that understanding the needs of the community and developing programs accordingly is what sets DIVERSEcity apart. For example, DIVERSEcity also partnered with Fraser Health to expand the Roshni Clinic to better support people in South Asian communities who are struggling with substance use. Expanding services for immigrant seniors and youth to build community connections is also an important priority.
“We are focused on what we do. Our work has been developing over the last 40 years and we have focused on Surrey and the peoplewho live here purposefully. We came when the city was developing and now have grown up with the community we have served.”